Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness

Maureen MurdockMental Illness18 Comments

A friend of my son’s recently sent me an interview on NPR with the actress Glenn Close who is the co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind.

The nonprofit organization aims to confront the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. You may have seen a documentary about Bring Change 2 Mind taped in Grand Central Station.

What impressed me about the interview, beside the fact that someone like Glenn Close is telling her family’s story, is that her sister, Jessie, who has bipolar disorder was not diagnosed until her late 40s. Her late 40s! Apparently, there were certain signs of troubling behavior when Jessie was a teenager but the family did not recognize signs of mental illness. It was only after Jessie’s own son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder that the family recognized that Jessie too suffered from a brain disorder.

When Jessie was a teenager 30 plus years ago there wasn’t as much known about the symptoms of bipolar disorder as there are now. As Glenn Close says in relation to her family, “We were clueless.” I can relate; I certainly didn’t recognize that some of my son’s behavior was due to bipolar disorder–even after he was diagnosed in his early twenties.

Bipolar disorder often begins in mid-to-late adolescence or early adulthood and an episode of bipolar illness can occur seasonally, most often in the spring or autumn, on an annual or bi-annual basis. There may or may not be a major life stressor that precipitates an episode, although the underlying biochemical problems make people with bipolar disorder more vulnerable to emotional and physical stresses. As a result, upsetting life experiences, substance use, or lack of sleep can trigger an episode of illness.

The following is a list of some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder. This list is not meant as a diagnostic tool; it is intended for information only. Hopefully, the more we understand the symptoms of a brain disorder the less stigma there will be.

  • hyperactivity
  • intense mood swings, quiet or angry
  • unpredictable moods
  • flatness of mood
  • trouble containing anger and irritability
  • talking endlessly, mind racing, rambling
  • pressured speech
  • obsessive repetition or increased activity
  • loss of concentration
  • dramatic change in appearance
  • self-imposed isolation from friends and family
  • trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • chronic insomnia
  • decreased need for sleep

Glenn Close says that her profession has perpetuated the stigma about mental illness by making people who have a mental illness dangerous or violent and she is committed to changing the discrimination, prejudice and stigma about mental illness in our society today.

18 Comments on “Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness”

  1. well, when mine first started, it was when my gran died. i felt like i wasnt real, nointhg around me was real and so low and miserable. and slightly crazy.i have had it again recently as i had a still born baby boy and this time round have had thoughts of killing myself, how ever i am still here and fighting it (as well as anxiety).the best tip is to keep ure self busy, go out when ure feeling really low, be with friends who make u feel good, do things u like. you will find that stuff u used to like will not be as appealling as before.email me if u want will try to help u more x Was this answer helpful?

  2. My mother lost a baby when I was two. He was her first and only child that she gave birth to. He lived for two hours. She never held him, she never even saw him.
    My dad went to his funeral alone.
    Me and my two brothers were adopted.
    The pain of mother’s grieving was very long.
    She listened to records about a baby’s funeral a gospel song called “Steal Away”.
    My parent’s grief was real.
    They adopted my brother when I was 9 years old.
    They hadn’t been able to conceive again since the death of their baby.

    When my grandmother died Mum said she couldn’t ever enjoy Christmas Day again and she would say that every Christmas.
    I don’t know but maybe trying to be cheerful when really there is unhappy stuff going on. I didn’t know to be cheerful when I was a kid , I just carried on. It just got more complicated as a teenager.

  3. Further to my above comment. I asked my care co-ordinator why I have bipolar and he told me about The Stess -Vulnerability Model. I was able to look up information about this on the internet. Below is a link that I looked at recently


  4. Thank you, Maureen, for an evocative posting. Indeed, there are biochemical factors at work in bipolar disorder. Whether they are the ‘chicken’ or the ‘egg’ is an issue I am inadequate to address. But we know that body and psyche are one; we know that influences in one arena impact the other. This dramatic ‘swing’ between emotional polar opposites is not only difficult for ‘others’ (family and friends, colleagues) to encounter, we can imagine how challenging it must be to actually experience and be ‘swept away’ by those forces. As the various memoirs – like that of Dr. Kay Jamison – attest, it is a tough road to negotiate, often feeling impossible. That said, my experience with individuals trying to cope with these realities reveals there is substantial hope for gaining balance. Ongoing efforts oriented to ‘bridging’ psychic forces, and conscious efforts to ‘live’ the bridge are helpful. Just like individuals who must find a way to fulfilling lives in the face of horrific chronic and life-threatening auto-immune disorders, there are people successfully navigating a fate of bipolar disorder. As you so importantly suggest, acknowledging and accepting these realities are the first crucial step. I would hope that individuals suffering from this struggle, as well as their families and friends, can find the heart way to self and ‘other’ loving support and professional guidance; denial and stigma are sad and unfortunate responses that can only fuel the life-destructive energies at work in these physical and psychological disorders. Thank you for your efforts to bring light and soul to these very real human struggles.

    1. Thank you, Cheryle, for your encouraging comment that the individuals you are working with are gaining balance from being buffeted by the swings in mood they are subjected to. They are truly lucky to be working with you.

  5. Hi Maureen–Once again I found your blog very thought provoking.I have a good friend that works a lot encouraging those with mental illness to use the method of Recovery–do you know that organization–started by Dr Lowe. It doubt it works well with the bipolar diseases–mostly it helps those who have obsessions and fears–trains them with willness and to use muscle movement to conquer some terrible fears.She says some find it an excellent way of managing their phobias which have consumed them over the years.

    I just had lunch the other day with a friend who told me her 20 year old grandson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder–he is a smart nice kid who saw the signs in himself and has gone into a facility for help–seems as if many have it and do not even realize it.

    I thought your list was a good reference guide.

    Keep doing your good work–the more educated everyone becomes about mental illness, the better off the world will be.


  6. Maureen,
    The day before I received the latest post on your blog, I visited a friend who showed me a picture of her brother in his twenties. The photo of this young, dashing, handsome young man was in sad contrast to the recent photo of him with unkempt gray hair and beard, terrified eyes, looking like a mad, tormented person. Mental illness is heartbreaking. As the sister of Glenn Close said in the video, “We can talk about it now.”
    Bravo to you for heightening public awareness of the tragedy of bipolar illness.

  7. Very helpful list. When the TV series “Homeland” first aired I thought it would help show that a person with bipolar disorder, “Carrie”, the main character in the show, could still be functional and productive even in a high stress job as an anti-terrorist CIA officer. Unfortunately this season’s episodes seem intent on showing her as an uncontrollable wacko. Perhaps as the season unfolds Carrie will resume taking medication and be restored to an effective contributor. There should be no shame that a person with a mental disorder needs to take medication for it. Certainly lots of people with physical conditions take regular doses of medication to be able to function “normally”, particularly men of a certain age.

    1. I agree that recent episodes of “Homeland” have been showing “Carrie” in the extreme phase of mania and I wonder at times why the writers of the show need to show her so out of control. I’m happy to see the portrayal of a smart, intuitive woman holding a high powered job who is challenged by the mood swings inherent in bipolar illness but Claire Danes’ intense eyes make her look quite disturbed.
      I also have concerns about the writers’ exploitation of “Dana’s” adolescent grief. The focus in recent episodes seems to be on female emotional meltdown.

  8. I was diagnosed bipolar at 30. Perhaps people thought I was just behaving badly at times – my g.p. was disgusted with me because of my outbursts. Thankfully she is no longer my doctor.

    1. Thanks, Lynne, for your comment. You are not alone in having your illness misdiagnosed as bad behavior. People don’t understand the symptoms of bipolar disorder and want it to “go away”. But, for your sake, I wish your doctor had.

      1. Thank you for your reply. My son was born when I was 26. If I had been diagnosed earlier – say in my teens then it is possible my life would have had a different path and the joy he has given me would not exist. I have accepted that being diagnosed at 30 is just part of my bipolar story and no one is to blame. In some ways having my label has made life more of a stuggle. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my attitude towards it but many other factors have come into play. Generally speaking if one can get help then it might be possible to have some form of recovery I would like to think.

      2. well things happen for a reason. I wasn’t diagnosed earlier so that is that. I did learn some bad ways of coping or rather often not coping with stress and such like. I think that has made it harder for me to be treated post diagnosis.
        The problem though with diagnosis has been the stigma and the bad feelings I have about me now being a certified insane person. Not easy to think – oh people think I’m a nutter. etc. do I look like a nutter? Am I behaving like a nutter. Sorry I know these are not politically correct terms but its a struggle.
        I do not love being manic and I do not love being depressed.
        Its not all just about the biology either.
        Somewhere along the line for me I have developed a pattern of thinking I am going to fail.
        I failed my first important maths exam and it followed on from there.
        I thought I wasn’t good looking enough.
        My self-esteem was strongly rooted in my satisfaction when I achieved good results at school.
        There are some deep-rooted self-esteem issues that I have developed going right back to a very young age. I had a favourite cardigan as a child and I remember losing one of the buttons from it at school. I searched all over the green grass of the school play area. I felt bereft. Such a silly thing to get upset about. I was desperate for love and approval from my parents. I felt I had to prove myself to them when I was a child. I got more disillusioned as I got older.

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